MLB: National League Playoff Preview

I wrote up the American League preview yesterday.

Los Angeles Dodgers (104-58)

58-15.  From June 1st through August 25th, the Dodgers put together one of the best stretches of baseball in the history of the game, and were primed to make a run at some of the best single-season teams in history.   A 13-22 finish to the season turned the discussion from “one of the best teams ever” to “they peaked early.”   Can they change that around in time for the playoffs?

Reasons for hope:   When you think of the Dodgers, you think of fantastic starting pitching.  That is no different in 2017, as the team compiled the best starters’ ERA (3.39), WHIP (1.15), on-base percentage (.292), and slugging percentage (.385).   It should not be surprising that the staff is led by all-world ace Clayton Kershaw, who compiled 18 wins, a 2.31 ERA, and 202/30 K/BB ratio in 175 innings.   Kershaw’s post-season issues are well-chronicled, though his performance in Game 5 of the NLDS against the Washington Nationals showed what kind of difference maker he can be.    The acquisition of Yu Darvish solidified a rotation that also includes a pair of left-handers (Alex Wood, Rich Hill) who also put together strong seasons.    Their solid bullpen has one of the best firemen in the game (Kenley Jansen, who sported a 1.32 ERA over 109 strikeouts in 68.1 innings)

The offense is led by sure-fire Rookie of the Year Cody Bellinger (39 home runs, .933 OPS) and infielders Justin Turner (.945 OPS) and Cory Seager (.854).  The Dodgers clobbered 221 home runs, which is only 11th in baseball, but is still impressive when you consider where they play home games.

Reasons to mope:  The lineup doesn’t have a lot of depth to it, which is why they rank dead list among all playoff teams in runs scored.  They only batted .249 as a team (though, to be fair, they drew so many walks that they finished 6th in baseball in OBP).    One does have to worry about their ability to maintain rallies in the playoffs, as they may try to rely more on the Earl Weaver strategy of pitching well and hitting a big 3-run home run (a strategy I happen to like, but I am not sure if the Dodgers have enough firepower to win consistently in the playoffs that way).   As stated above, Kershaw’s postseason performances can be described as uneven, at best, and the Dodgers need him to be on his “A” game to advance far in the playoffs.

Bottom line:   It is obvious that the Dodgers were too flawed to make a legitimate run at the best teams in the history of the sport, but don’t let that 13-22 finish fool you.  The 2000 Yankees are famous for their late-season free fall that turned into a World Series championship.  The Dodgers still boast outstanding pitching.  Their home-field advantage throughout the playoffs can also come in handy, given that they were a MLB-best 57-24 playing on their home turf.

Washington Nationals (97-65)

The Nationals have become the poster children for postseason disappointment.   Despite their recent run of regular season success, the Nationals are still looking for that elusive playoff series win.    Is this the year they can overcome some big injuries to survive and advance?

Reasons for hope:   You would think a team that lost one of the best players in the game (Bryce Harper), their starting shortstop (Trea Turner), and their leadoff hitter (Adam Eaton) would suffer offensively, and while that is undoubtedly true, it didn’t hurt nearly as much as you would think.  The Nationals finished fifth in baseball in runs scored, led by one of the best offensive infields in all of baseball.  Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy, and Anthony Rendon all finished the season with an OPS number above .900.   Put that together with a returning Harper (assuming he really is healthy), and you have another strong offensive team in the 2017 playoffs. (The top 8 offenses, by runs, made the playoffs this year).

On the mound, the Nationals feature three starters who put together an ERA under 3.00 this year, with Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg leading the way.  They both put up extraordinary ERA+ numbers (175+ each), while Gio Gonzalez had one of his best seasons in his long career.   The Nationals led all of baseball in starter’s innings, and were one of three squads to compile 1,000+ strikeouts from their starters (Indians and Red Sox are the other two)

Reasons to mope:   Injuries.  There is no guarantee that Harper is all the way back from his awful-looking knee injury, and there is no designated hitter spot to park his bat in.    Since a 65-70% Bryce Harper is still one of the best players in baseball, the bigger injury may involve Scherzer, who left his last outing of the season with a hamstring injury that could impact the Cy Young Award candidate’s status for Game 1 of the NLDS against the Cubs.   The Nationals are built around their starting pitchers pitching well and pitching deep, and any loss of time for Scherzer will be devastating.

Why?   Because their bullpen is a disaster.   They ranked 23rd in baseball in bullpen ERA, ahead of only some of the worst teams in baseball this season.   They did a nice job adding depth to their bullpen as the season went along, though, adding a solid left-handed option (Sean Doolittle, who saved 21 of 22 after being acquired) and a solid right-handed setup man (Minnesota closer Brandon Kintzler.  The issue with Kintzler is that he lacks the ability to strike hitters out).  Matt Albers had a big season (out of nowhere), but the Nationals let their starters stay in games longer for two reasons:  1.  Dusty Baker has never cared much for the pitch count revolution and 2.  Their bullpen was terrible.

Bottom line:   We all wait for this franchise to break through and make a postseason run.   They have two of the best power starters in baseball, a solid third starter, and a lineup that is good even when it isn’t whole.   However, Harper’s injury and the questionable nature of Scherzer’s status make it hard to recommend that this will be the year that the breakthrough occurs.

Chicago Cubs (92-70)

Seemingly asleep throughout most of the season, the Cubs were finally able to put away the pesky Milwaukee Brewers in the season’s final weeks.  The Cubs were a lowly 43-45 at the All-Star Break, scoring as many runs as they allowed.   You can do the math on how the REST of the season fared as they attempt to become the first team since the Yankees’ dynasty to repeat as champions.

Reasons for hope:  For the most part, the team that won the 2016 World Series is the same team trying to win it again in 2017.  2016 MVP Kris Bryant put together another big season (.946 OPS), while first baseman Anthony Rizzo continued to prove that he is one of baseball’s best first basemen, driving home 109 runs while taking 91 walks (one of those rare modern hitters who walked more than he struck out – he struck out 90 times).    Rizzo is not on the level of the unbelievable Joey Votto, but his overall game is very similar on a smaller scale.   One big difference on the offensive side of the ball was the addition of rookie Ian Happ, who would be one of the favorites for the Rookie of the Year trophy if not for that guy named Bellinger.    All put together, the Cubs scored the second highest runs among NL playoff teams (Rockies scored two more), and drew the second most walks in baseball (behind the Dodgers).

Led by Wade Davis (32-for-33 in save opportunities), the Cubs also had a strong back-end of their bullpen, though when compared to other playoff teams, they fall a bit short in this department.

Reasons to mope:    There could be some World Series fatigue going on with their pitching staff.  Their starters compiled a rather pedestrian 4.05 ERA, a mark that is second worst among the NL field, ahead of only the Mile High Rockies.   Jon Lester regressed badly (4.33 ERA, 100 ERA+), while John Lackey posted a 4.59 ERA.  Jake Arrieta was solid, but his regression from his spectacular 2015 season continued.  He is no longer viewed as the unhittable ace at the top of the rotation.   The July trade for Jose Quintana stabilized things, but his 3.74 ERA in 14 starts for the Cubs was good, but hardly spectacular.   The pitching staff was expected to fall a bit this year, but I think it fell a bit more than anyone expected it to.

Bottom line:  The Cubs did what they were supposed to do in 2017:  Win the NL Central.  It wasn’t easy, thanks to the upstart Brewers and pesky Cardinals, but in the end, nobody was able to overcome the talent the Cubs possess.    The pitching scares me, though, and I wonder how it will hold up against the Nationals’ tough offense.  I don’t expect a repeat here.

Arizona Diamondbacks (93-69)

It is remarkable when you think about it:  The Dodgers were so dominant for most of the season that it was easy to forget that the Diamondbacks and Rockies were also putting together strong seasons right within the same division.   Even as the Dodgers were beginning to go on their massive run, the Diamondbacks hung tough for a little while, trailing the Los Angeles team by only a half-game as late as June 14th.   They were also able to quickly gain 12 games on the Dodgers when they went on their own tear late in August into September, but the deficit was just too large to completely overcome.

Reasons for hope:    The DBacks fashioned the third best team ERA in all of baseball (only Indians and Dodgers were better), led by a resurgent Zack Greinke (3.20 ERA in his second year after signing his big deal.  Last year, he looked like a colossal flop, when he posted a 4.37 ERA in 158.2 innings) and youngsters Robbie Ray (struck out 218 hitters in only 162 innings, with an ERA below 3.00) and Taijuan Walker (3.49 ERA in 157.1 innings after being acquired from the Mariners in the off-season).

Offensively, they are led by one of the best overall hitters of the current generation:  Paul Goldschmidt drove home 120 runs, while putting up a strong .297/.404/.563 triple slash, which should put him in the wide-open NL MVP conversation.    He is the rare first baseman who does everything well, including stealing bases (18-for-23).     You can’t discuss the Diamondbacks offense, however, without mentioning J.D. Martinez.  Acquired before the deadline from the Detroit Tigers, Martinez was unstoppable, hitting 29 home runs in only 62 games after being acquired.   That run of terror is going to earn him a nice free agent contract this winter, one would think.

Reasons to mope:  Fernando Rodney.  Fernando Rodney.  Say it again, everyone:   Fernando Rodney.   While he somehow saved 39 games, the more telling numbers are the 4.23 ERA and 26 walks in 55.1 innings.   He does strike out more than a batter per inning, but most closers do that nowadays.  It is not remotely a stretch to say that Rodney is likely the worst closer in the field.  The Diamondbacks’ bullpen as a whole is actually not terrible, led by converted starter Archie Bradley.   Some would say that it isn’t even necessarily bad that your best relievers come into games before the 9th inning, but it is going to be hard to have much faith in Rodney in a 4-3 game entering the 9th inning.

Bottom line:   I see the Diamondbacks as one of the strongest teams in this league as we head into the playoffs, with an even better chance than the Yankees to create havoc if they get out of their Wild Card game.  The National League field isn’t as strong as the AL counterparts, opening the door for a Wild Card team to make a run.  If the Diamondbacks are alive after Wednesday, the Dodgers and their fans would have every reason to panic.

Colorado Rockies (87-75)

If not for the Minnesota Twins, the Rockies would be the most unlikely entrant in this field.  The Rockies rarely win much (this is only their fourth playoff appearance in team history, and they still lack a division title).  In a division with two very strong teams, you have to give credit to the Rockies for hanging tough for much of the season, before fading back to settle for Wild Card #2.

Reasons for hope:    When you adjust their starters’ ERAs to factor in ballpark effects, the Rockies had five starters who were above average starters this year.  I know that is difficult to envision, but when you use ERA+ (a metric that factors in ballpark), not one of those five starters put up a number below 107 (100 is considered league average).   It is interesting to also note that they don’t have one starter in those five who is older than 27 years of age.  I have to assume that playing in Colorado has some effect on any pitcher who pitches there, so for young pitchers to put up numbers like this at a young age in that ballpark bodes well for the franchise’s future.   Their right-lefty bullpen combination of Greg Holland and Jake McGee can make games dicey for opponents late.  A deal with the Phillies for Pat Neshek helped lengthen their bullpen.

Outfielder Charlie Blackmon won the league batting title, while third baseman Nolan Arenado is a legitimate MVP candidate.   The Rockies scored the most runs in the National League, leading the league in batting average, on-base percentage, and OPS.  Their environment does contribute to that.

Reasons to mope:   That is why their offense can be considered a potential weakness, even with those gaudy rankings.  Only three regulars put together an OPS+(which factors in ballparks) above 100 (Arenado, Blackmon, Mark Reynolds), and three of their regulars couldn’t even crack a number above 90.

As mentioned above, their starting pitching is very young, which could be a detriment in a playoff environment, especially when facing the best of the best.  The bullpen has some arms that can beat you late, but the underbelly of the pen is suspect, which could be a problem if their starter can’t give them length on Wednesday or beyond if they survive Wednesday.

Bottom line:   The Rockies held their own against playoff teams this year, putting together winning records against the Dodgers (10-9), Indians (3-1), Cubs (5-2), and Twins (2-1).  They also went 4-5 against the Nationals.    The Rockies are living in their one bizarre universe this season, as they are more likely to out-pitch you than out-hit you (relative to their home ballpark, which is important to point out).    I don’t expect a long stay, especially given my prediction to come out of the National League.

Predicted Winner:   Picking a Wild Card team is so stupid, but I fit that part well.   I am going with the Arizona Diamondbacks to beat this solid, but flawed, group of franchises.

World Series:   Indians finally get to the end, beating the Diamondbacks in 6 games.

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